Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Are Lorentz transforms unique?

  1. Aug 16, 2009 #1
    Apparently Poincare suggested and Einstein adopted/proposed that all physical laws should remain unchanged in form after a Lorentz transformation.

    Do we know these are the only transforms that work or does the possibility exist that other transforms might also??

    For example, if I ask the question "What transforms retain the form of Maxwell's equations in different frames?" Lorentz transforms is one answer; but is it the only one??

    If any particular transform worked in one physical law and not another, would that hint at anything....is that even possible??
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    If you assume that the set of functions that represent a coordinate change from one inertial frame (an undefined concept at this point) to another, has the structure of a group (with composition of functions as the group multiplication), and that each such function takes straight lines to straight lines (an inertial observer should describe another inertial observer as moving with constant velocity), we're already down to just two possibilities: The Galilei group and the Poincaré group (and their subgroups of course).

    As you know, the Galilei group isn't consistent with an invariant speed of light, so we have to drop that too.

    Oh yeah, you obviously also have to assume that we're talking about functions that take [itex]\mathbb R^4[/itex] to itself.
  4. Aug 16, 2009 #3
    Fredrik: thanks for the reply.

    It's been waaaaay too long since I studied groups.....I can accept that group theory applies to coordinate changes/ transforms...but how do we know the combination applies to the physical world...

    because "so far observation matches theory"????

    Maybe that's as far as my question takes goes. Or maybe I should ask if the Lorentz transforms can be derived from group theory....I assume not; so how do we know another suitable transform is not hidden in there???
  5. Aug 16, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The assumption that they form a group is not a strong assumption. Essentially it's saying this: Suppose that S, S' and S'' are three physical observers, that x is the coordinate change from S to S' and that y the coordinate change from S' to S''. Then [itex]x^{-1}[/itex] is the coordinate change from S' to S and [itex]y\circ x[/itex] is the coordinate change from S to S''. This assumption seems even more natural to me than the one about straight lines.

    Not sure if I understand the question. You kind of answered it yourself, I think. I only have these two things to add:

    1. We never know if a theory really describes the world. The best we can do is to find out how accurate the theory's predictions are.

    2. The type of argument we're discussing here is supposed to be used at the stage where we're trying to find a mathematical model of space and time that might be useful in a new theory. (Of course SR isn't really new anymore, but you get the idea). There really is no need to know that something useful will come out of it, when we're doing this. It would actually be absurd to require that, since we don't even have a theory yet.

    Isn't that the question I answered in #2? Or are you asking for the details of the derivation? I did most of it here (for the 1+1-dimensional case), but I don't think I figured out the minimal set of assumptions that we need. This paper has more on that.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  6. Aug 16, 2009 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

  7. Aug 16, 2009 #6
    Fredrik: yes, I asked essentially the same question again....you caught me!!!....While the paper you referenced was a bit exotic for me mathematically, it did provide some perspective:

    This seems a natural extension of the idea I was trying to explore....

    I also checked Einstein's own book RELATIVITY (The special and the general theory) and found this in Appendix V :
    thanks for your reply....Your comments relate to others that appear in Einstein's appendix V and putting the pieces together makes me realize I am mathematically limited for this issue....

    What's the significance (anything physical?) of invariance under conformal transformations? I know too little of conformal geometry to draw any conclusions.

    And rereading my own original post I realized that my last question:

    had at least one obvious example I should have remembered : Galilean transform works in Newton's Theory, not in Maxwell's. According to Feynman's lectures, (SIX Not So Easy Pieces) when that was discovered it initially cast doubt on Maxwell's equations (!) and appears to have led to the widespread adoption of Lorentz Tranforms...and final confirmation of Mawell's 20 year old equations!!!
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2009
  8. Aug 17, 2009 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Here's my thoughts on this. Let me know if you agree or disagree. (I know almost nothing about conformal transformations. I still haven't read that thread you started).

    As you know, an arbitrary Lorentz transformation in 1+1 dimensions can be written as

    [tex]\Lambda=\gamma\begin{pmatrix}1 & -v\\ -v & 1\end{pmatrix}[/tex]



    What's the corresponding expression for a conformal transformation? Is it

    [tex]\Lambda=k\gamma\begin{pmatrix}1 & -v\\ -v & 1\end{pmatrix}[/tex]

    with k an arbitrary constant? Should I perhaps replace [itex]k\gamma[/itex] with an arbitrary function of v?

    If this (either of the two possibilities I suggested) is right, the reason we don't consider the conformal group to be a candidate when we go through the argument that's supposed to help us find a mathematical model of space and time that's appropriate for a new (in 1905) theory of space and time, is that it doesn't satisfy the condition [itex]\Lambda(v)^{-1}=\Lambda(-v)[/itex].
  9. Aug 17, 2009 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Entirely from memory, I thought the conformal transformations we discussed a month or two ago were of the form

    [tex]t' = \frac{At + Bx + C}{Pt + Qx + R}[/tex]
    [tex]x' = \frac{Dt + Ex + F}{Pt + Qx + R}[/tex]​

    which suffer from the defect that they're not actually defined when the denominator vanishes. I think when you do the maths with these, you can represent such a transform by the matrix

    [tex]\begin{pmatrix}A & B & C\\ D & E & F\\P & Q & R\end{pmatrix}[/tex]​

    and a composition of transforms corresponds to a multiplication of the matrices.
  10. Aug 17, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Yeah, I might be way off. Somehow I got the idea a long time ago that a conformal transformation is kind of like a Lorentz transformation except that it also changes the scale involved, and I never tried to find out if that's even true. To be more specific, I think I heard the word "conformal" used in the following context:

    Define [itex]g(x,y)=x^T\eta y[/itex]. A Lorentz transformation leaves this quantity invariant, [itex]g(\Lambda x,\Lambda y)=g(x,y)[/itex], but what do you call the class of transformations that instead satisfies [itex]g(\Lambda x,\Lambda y)=K^2g(x,y)[/itex], were K is some real and positive constant?
  11. Aug 17, 2009 #10
    Regarding post 7,8,9: you might find some common source material for discussion at

    In Feynman's SIX NOT SO EASY PIECES he makes this comment in his lecture series (Page 77):
    It has turned out
    [QUOTE..to be of enormous utility in our study of other physical laws..to look at the symmetry of the laws...or more specifically to look for the ways in which the laws can be transformed and leave their form the same. So this idea of studying the patterns or operations under which the fundamental laws are not changed has proved to be a very useful one.[/QUOTE]

    So I should have made the connection, I think, that the mathematical properties posted by others above actually relate to symmetries....How about Noether's Theorem's? (symmetry and conservation)
  12. Aug 17, 2009 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Actually, you may well be right over what "conformal" means. It's not my area of expertise but what you said sounds familiar.

    But I suspect what samalkhaiat was referring to in post #5 was what I described in post #8. I could be wrong.
  13. Aug 24, 2009 #12
    How were the Lorentz transformations derived? I don't mean in a mathematical sense (I know it's a mathmatical construct so that doesn't really make sense. I just mean was it trail and error or a prediction of somthing else, or just maths), I just mean does it represent something more fundamental? Would it work with any self consistent transformation just as c can have any value? Would a different value for c change the transformations? No right?
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2009
  14. Aug 25, 2009 #13
    From some fundamental constraints imposed by the requirement that laws of physics remain the same in all inertial frames (read: the transformations were historically derived by imposing the requirement that a spherical wavefront in one frame remain spherical in another inertial frame moving wrt the first one), and that the speed of light be the same in all inertial frames. It should be noted that Lorentz, who originally derived the transformation laws (and so did Poincare), subscribed to the ether theory and NOT to Einstein's radical viewpoint (which would only come much later). So while he used the same equations, he ascribed the effects to be dynamical and not kinematic.

    The value of c was an experimental input, and yes, the form of the transformations is not dependent on the numerical value of c. To that extent, the transformation is "arbitrary". But then that is parametric arbitrariness, not form arbitrariness. I believe Naty was asking if some other functional form of the transformation law exists which is NOT the Lorentz transformation.

    My answer to it is that Lorentz transformations as "derived" above are the high velocity versions of Galilean transformations which are the simplest linear transformations connecting two inertial frames of reference while enforcing homogeneity and isotropy of space and time. If you can find an alternative to Galilean transformations (which must be linear by the way, or else homogeneity and isotropy will break down) then you can enforce the form invariance of a spherical wavefront (as was done to get Lorentz transformations from Galilean transformations) and see what terms you need to add or multiply to get consistent results in all inertial frames. But since you will always start with something that is Galilean, the answer is no. Lorentz transformations are unique.
  15. Aug 28, 2009 #14

    Okay, they took a light bubble from another frame, which would not be spherical due to the difference in velocities, then made it spherical again because of the constant speed of light and you have the Lorentz transformations.

    I have another way. I'll post it when I've seen if I can take it any further. I'm trying to get the value of c from it.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook